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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Poetry from a Muscular Mind BY DAVE OLIPHANT IF I HAD WHEELS OR LOVE: COLLECTED POEMS OF VASSAR MILLER Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, TEN YEARS AGO, IN the October 23, 1981 issue of The Texas Observer, Larry McMurtry bestowed the laurel above all other Texas authors on this Houston poet who, born with cerebral palsy and having a speech impediment, has created some of the most eloquent lines in modern English verse. In an essay entitled “Vassar Miller and Her Peers: A Causerie,” collected in Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller University of Texas professor and a noted poet in his own right has proclaimed Miller’s -“Age of Aquarius, Age of Assassins,” a work inspired by the shooting of then-presidential candidate George Wallace, “one of the great poems of this century.” Without a doubt, the publication of Vassar Miller’s Collected Poems is a major event in the short history of Texas letters. This represents the first collected poems by a Texas poet, an achievement in itself, but more so when one considers the level of thought and artistry attained by Miller over the span of some 40 years of writing. Bringing together all the poems from eight individual volumes Selected and New Poems If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller demonstrates the variety, range, and power of Miller’s work, acclaimed at the time of its first appearances in book form as the most important religious poetry in America. My own reading of Vassar Miller’s poetry dates from my discovery of her work as anthologized in the 1957 New Poets of England and America The Collected Poems reinforces my impression that indeed her principal subject was and is religious in nature though not limited to nor by this preoccupation. Much of Miller’s early work recalls such 17th-century poets as John Donne in England and Edward Taylor in America, and in “The Ghostly Beast” from her 1963 volume, My Bones Being Wiser, she depends heavily on paradox, the metaphysical poet’s hallmark: Your weight withdrawn weighs burdensome Upon my flesh till I become The intery,a1 between two breaths, A life lived out in little deaths. Characteristic of her finest work, this poem is composed of stanzas with, in her own words, “rhymes like catapulted stones” and is an instance of her tendency to begin a poem with a line \(“My broken that evinces her attraction to such forms as the sonnet, the villanelle and the sestina. Unlike her public poem on George Wallace, “The Ghostly Beast” is representative of her more private writing, although both poems are enhanced, as Thomas Whitbread points out in the Dave Oliphant is a writer who lives in Austin. 18 OCTOBER 4, 1991 case of the assassins poem, through the use of strict form, a “rip tide rigorously held in check by the brilliant rhyme scheme.” More significantly, “The Ghostly Beast” alludes to if it does not actually concern a consistent theme in Miller’s poetry: the absence of father, God and lover. Deprived of her chief human support by her father’s death \(he first cept through prayer, and frustrated physically from experiencing sexual union, Vassar Miller writes passionately of all three. A concomitant theme is found in a poem like “Letters to a Young Girl Considering a Religious Vocation,” where the poet acknowledges that her days have been spent learning “how well we do / to get through our lives alive!” In a similar letter poem, “Bread-and-Butter Letter Not Sent,” she refers to her two primary means of enduring her especially difficult existence without father, God or lover that is, through sleep and poetry: Dear friend, in the swing of sunlight let me hold the knowledge of my pain far away, like the sea in a shell and wash my wounds for awhile in sleep. I am sorry to sing you no more melodious song, yet only the taste of its notes biting my tongue reminds me, sometimes, that I am alive. In “Another Sleep Poem,” Miller recalls Donne’s great sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” when she writes that “far more than death sleep soothes me.” Instead of a lover, the poet takes to bed only sleep poems on this evanescent state, as in “Rescue,” which describes her return “from the tides of sleep The body slackened and aching, Swaying from tug and sweep Of the kelp that, glued around it Like tentacles, haye bound it And dragged it deep to deep. Once the poet, as she writes in “Bout with Burning,” has been “marooned upon the coasts of morning,” it is her courageous effort to deal with her disability with living in her imperfect flesh that leads her to share with an Edward Taylor that Puritan’s view that because God can take a special interest in man, corrupt though he may be, it moves him to sing his creator’s praises the more, glorying even in his pigsty of a body. This consolation can be found in such a poem as Miller’s “A Duller Moses”: I tremble, dreaming between sleep and sleep That He, both radiance and incendiary, In my heart lies as on the cross He lay Oh, monstrous miracle! God’s sanctuary. The ugliness of her body is a persistent motif in Miller’s writing,